Wednesday, April 25, 2018
Public safety

Romano: We ask a lot of our cops, but trust is not negotiable

Sometimes I fear we demand too much from cops.

They need to be decisive yet patient. They need to be fearless yet compassionate. They need to be everything we could possibly hope for whenever they are called to our door.

We place all of these implausible expectations on men and women who, just like us, have both good and bad days on the job.

Yet, having said that, there is absolutely one expectation of law enforcement that can never be compromised:

We have to be able to trust cops.

Implicitly, unequivocally, eternally.

And that is why Tampa police Chief Jane Castor made the right call, difficult as it may have been, in firing Sgt. Ray Fernandez last week.

His mistakes were not accidental. They were not in the heat of the moment. And they most certainly were not inconsequential.

Those mistakes not only cast doubt on a single incident, but on the trustworthiness of an entire department.

If you somehow missed the case, Fernandez is the DUI supervisor involved in the arrest of a prominent Tampa lawyer who, state investigators now seem to agree, was set up by a rival firm.

There is no hard evidence that Fernandez was a knowing participant in the setup, but there are ample questions about his judgment leading up to, and after, the arrest this year.

Is there a smoking gun? Not really. There is no single witness, conversation, document or video that automatically points the finger of wrongdoing at Fernandez.

Instead, what we have is an accumulation of doubt. A series of hard-to-buy explanations that do not meet the standards we have come to expect from our law enforcement agencies.

You can start with the initial tip of a potential drunken driver. The tip came from a close family friend of Fernandez's. Nothing wrong with that, except Fernandez should have excused himself from the case. And information about the tip should have been included in the arrest report. Both decisions could be interpreted as a conflict of interest.

If it had ended there, Fernandez's career may have been spared.

The bigger problem was the aftermath. The "accidental'' deletion of 92 text messages exchanged by Fernandez and his friend that night. The sworn testimony that he did not speak with his friend after the arrest, when phone records indicate he did.

The crux of the problem is that Fernandez knew he had a potential mess on his hands, and instead of immediately notifying higher-ups in the department, he gave the appearance of covering his tracks at every turn.

The result is the department looked complicit when officials came to his defense, and that is a sin that could not be forgiven by Castor.

So is it fair that a long and distinguished career could be tainted by a series of mistakes in a single 24-hour period? Perhaps not.

Is it fair that a single sworn statement about a phone conversation is used as the basis of an officer's termination? That, too, is debatable.

And if Ray Fernandez had a different type of job, maybe the outcome would be different as well.

But police officers have to be better.

Maybe it's too much to ask them to be perfect, but it's not too much to ask that they are completely trustworthy.

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